In a nutshell: A delightfully silly rom-com that picks its theme and manages to stick to it without losing track of its characters, its emotion or its story. Combining a lot of fun, a lot of heart, and a surprising amount of heat, it makes for a tasty, tasty drama-meal that you’ll expect to be nothing more than a sweet, fluffy treat. But as you walk away, contentedly satisfied, you’ll realize the drama managed to slip you your vegetables while you thought you were just eating junk-food. (It will also leave you with a new appreciation for the art of the metaphor.)
The Plot: The basic story outline (which, for all the freshness of its telling, follows the standard rom-com plot-points pretty steadily) is a reversal of the Korean creation myth about Hwanung and the bear. To nutshell the myth, Hwanung, son of the Lord of Heaven, comes down to earth, teaches a bear how to be human, the bear turns into a beautiful woman, they get married. Cue happily ever after and the founding of kingdoms, etcetera, etcetera.
In our story the prince, Cha Chi-soo, crosses paths with the bear, Yang Eun-bi, as she’s attempting to earn her teacher’s certificate and become a member of the cultured adult world (or a human being). But instead of Eun-bi getting ushered into the sophisticated world Cha Chi-soo has been raised in, she teaches him about what it is to be a human being. He’s lived in a sanitized world that caters to his every whim but leaves him without appetite or drive or passion. Feelings are completely alien to him (he needs his best friend to explain things like attraction and jealousy and love), as is sexual attraction. (He knows how to use his own attractiveness, but I got the sense he’d never felt attracted to anyone before.)
Yang Eun-bi, on the other hand, is filled to the brim with feelings and appetite and passion. She starts out thinking this is a liability, holding her back from her goals. But as the drama unfolds, and as she interacts with Cha Chi-soo, she realizes that it’s his way of living that’s the liability. So Eun-bi has her own journey of self-discovery that pulls Cha Chi-soo along in her wake.
The Metaphors: There are metaphors galore in Flower Boy Ramyun Shop, as suits a fable. Some last for just an episode or two (sweaty sock versus perfumed handkerchief is a fun one) but others carry through from first to last. The Hwanung myth is one of the carry-throughs. Cha Chi-soo’s school nickname is Hwanung; Eun-bi is constantly referred to as having a bear’s temper and a bear’s strength.
There’s also a running metaphor of food and poop. Which sounds like the last thing you’d expect to find combined in a rom-com but fits in with the theme of choosing between getting down into the muck of life (living with appetite and passion) or attempting to rise above it (living in pristine, empty isolation). Cha Chi-soo refers to Eun-bi as poop he’s just stepped in (and continues to use that odorous metaphor to describe sexual attraction). And when Eun-bi tries to block her own nature and become the passionless “human” she thinks she needs to be, she gets constipated.
But it’s that very messiness of life that Flower Boy Ramyun Shop is urging its characters to embrace. It’s seeing Eun-bi sweat through an intense volley-ball workout that awakens Cha Chi-soo’s appetite and eventually leads him to the Ramyun Shop of the title. Eun-bi is at her strongest when she goes with her gut and damns the consequences. Following convention, playing safe and quiet and by the rules, is what gets her bound up and trapped.
The Players: It was a good crew presenting our story. They managed to seem right at home with both the broad comedic strokes and the more subtle moments of real character insight and pain and growth. Jung Il-woo was able to throw dignity to the wind to fully embody the ridiculousness of Cha Chi-soo in all his spoiled-brat glory, but then dial it right down to show the real boy hidden beneath Cha Chi-soo’s designer brands. Lee Ki-woo managed to balance being both the clown and the wise-man and gave his character enough pathos that you felt his pain as he put aside his own desires to gently usher his young brood into adulthood.
The big mystery for me is why haven’t I seen more of Lee Chung-ah? I adored her as Yang Eun-bi. She was hilarious and lovable and so relatable even as she unleashed her inner bear. I could completely understand both boys falling for her and yet could also believe her as an overlooked jock wholly unfamiliar with the world of modern dating.
In Conclusion: Through the formalized structure of the standard rom-com, within the constructs of metaphor and myth, Flower Boy Ramyun Shop manages to tell a story that digs deep into the sticky, stinky, malleable mess of living and shows the joy that comes from sucking out the marrow, slurping down the last noodle, and draining to the dregs the well-seasoned ramyun pot life serves you. This is a drama that will not leave you wanting.